Claustrophobia is a powerful tool. In an enclosed space there is no way to tell what may be behind you, creeping, or what lies beyond the next corner. Saturn 9 exploits this fear of the dark and the constrained in a very simple way while building up intensity through atmosphere and subtle music-cues. Saturn 9, developed by Raoghard, drops you off in the abandoned “Saturn 9″ space ship as a recon officer of some kind trying to find out what happened after the ship went dark. Without too many spoilers, someone on the ship went slightly mad and/or zombified and is now waiting for you in the depths of the ship.
The game is roughly a half an hour long, but Saturn 9‘s brevity is punctuated by a dark atmosphere. Your HUD is seen through the eyes of the character, meaning that the glass and curvature of your space-helmet is visible. The simplicity of adding curvature to the HUD text creates an environment in which the player has no idea what is going on around them. A helmet allows for tunnel vision and this game takes great advantage of it. As well, being in space, one needs oxygen. Throughout the game there are scripted events where the player must reach an oxygen tank or face asphyxiation, this is made more difficult as the world spins around the player as they begin to black out. Contained in these events are optical fallacies which are reminiscent of Dead Space’s original madness. They are truly creepy and unsettling and capture a part of space-horror which hasn’t been explored fully. Remove the science-fiction and the space aliens and the helix-monoliths, and there is still space and the vacuum out there; blackness that no human can endure. Unfortunately, due to the game’s short length, there are relatively few of these unsettling moments.
Saturn 9‘s mechanics are that of a simplistic first person adventure game, explore, find object or hint, use found-stuff to solve puzzle, continue. That is the majority of the game and it flows in fits and starts. The puzzle rooms are seperated by a horror-filled corridors with the atmosphere carrying throughout. That is the game, like I said, for the most part. The last section of Saturn 9 has a bit of a twist in mechanics which is a bit frustrating simply because of how sudden it is. I won’t spoil it, like I said, there are some things to be discovered in this game, but just… watch out for the last section.
As for story, Saturn 9 holds very little in the way of great human drama. The ship’s story is cataloged in audio recordings which bookend the sections of the game, telling the story of a scientist, a captain, and an engineer. None are there to greet you when you arrive, so, draw your own conclusions from that. The set-dressing for the game is sparse as well, and besides the heavy atmosphere there is little to differentiate Saturn 9 from any other space ship. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the game is short, scary, and to the point. The setting could benefit from a little sprucing up, but besides that, it runs quite well.
To be clear, Saturn 9 did scare me. It carried its atmosphere well throughout the game and the idea of an oxygen deprived environment is clever. Honestly, I just wanted more. The hallucination sections were wonderful and there could definitely have been more of that and less of the unnecessary puzzles. There is an idea that a horror game needs to have other elements in it as well to make it a game. It needs guns, or puzzles, or platforming, and true, without those there is little to fear. Atmosphere can only get you so far. The fear of failure and the risk of death carries great weight in games. They are great motivators and build tension easily. However, puzzles can be scary, difficult, and interesting all at the same time without breaking up gameplay. The puzzles in Saturn 9 felt uninteresting and distracted from the most interesting part of the game: the corridors in between.
So, should you play it? If you like a short, good scare? Absolutely. It was a fun little romp. Raoghard did an excellent job with this game, and I laud his ability to create a game which can scare me (not an easy feat), but as to whether or not I will play it again, I can safely say I will not return to Saturn 9 anytime soon. There isn’t enough to go back to. Hopefully Raoghard will be given the time and space to create something of length and breadth next time.
Saturn 9 is available on the XBLIG Marketplace for 80 MSP with a free demo.